I used to work in college admissions, where summer was our busiest time of year and we waited until the new students had gotten in and settled before we could take our vacation. Green Day’s “Wake me up When September Ends” was our theme song.
For some of my adult life, September was a depressing month. I remember the years I was in secretarial school. Secretarial school was a rash leap after being “required to withdraw” from university. From this vantage point today, I think secretarial school gave me some of the most useful and lucrative skills I have, but at the time I was feeling a dozen kinds of un-proud of myself. I used to walk from the bus stop at the Avalon Mall, up O’Leary Avenue towards Austin Street, and every morning the chemical smell of the Wonderbread factory would prompt this phrase in my mind: “Wonderbread: the scent of failure.”
September is a time that can feel like a fresh start, a second chance at a new year’s resolution. But for some of us, those who maybe didn’t get it right the first time, the sight of folks lugging their textbooks up Elizabeth Avenue can give us a sense of wistfulness that feels like a fresh new failure every year. I remember one year walking through MUN campus a week before classes would start, just passing through on an evening walk and thinking: Why was this so hard back then? Why did I have to mess it up?
When I worked in college admissions, I would talk to women going back for a second try at post-secondary studies, so many women my age and older who were anxious because the first time hadn’t worked out so well. I used to talk to those women and say, “You don’t realize it yet, but since your first try you’ve built up a whole new work ethic, a whole new motivation. You’re not too late, you’re just in time.” It took me a few years of saying that to other women before I learned to apply it to myself.
If you’re one who feels this way in September, I can reassure you by telling you that, for me, it got better. I feel lucky that a time came when I was able to give my university career a second try. It felt miraculous at the time, like an alignment of planets, the way circumstances conspired at a certain point. I feel lucky for that. But also, I feel proud of myself, because in addition to the miraculous piece, there was the hard work piece and the bravery piece, and I own both those pieces outright.
I have to be 100% honest here. While it’s a happy story, my sad Septembers turning to better ones, it’s not a happily-ever-after story. This September brings me a new complication. My freelance work has slowed way down, and after enjoying a summer of travel that I planned and committed to last January, I find myself needing to take stock of my work/life arrangement. I’ve spent some time recently in that failure space in my brain, and I’m working hard to separate the valuable lessons from the unhelpful self-recrimination.
The paradox right now is that I’m in this town in Montenegro that I’ve fallen in love with. There are old ladies who don’t speak English but who chat me up anyway. I have this hilarious knitting-for-coffee arrangement with the guy who runs the beach bar where I go to swim every morning. I’m in an apartment with a spectacular view, an apartment that I booked and paid for back when work was steady and finances were flush. My Instagram photos tell you one side of the story. The other piece of the story is that I’m living as simply and thriftily as I can, and hoping work picks up now that Labour Day has passed. I’ve had more than one day recently when I’ve felt like a fool for thinking I could have a life this sweet, ashamed of my optimism.
Two days ago, on my way home from the beach, I stopped at the bakery and, in my few bits of Serbian, asked for a “small bread” and a “strudel, cherry, not apple” and I asked the woman “how much” and understood her when she told me the amount. It gave me so much delight to be able to communicate in this broken way, a deep down conviction kind of delight that told me I am in the correct place, even if my current circumstances are making me feel like a failure and a fool.
The hopeful piece I hold during this time, and the piece I share with you if you are having a September that smells like a Wonderbread factory, is that each September is different. The sad one you’re feeling now won’t repeat every year of your life. When it’s hard to see a reason for hope in your future, just keep an eye out for the glimmers of something better. Pay attention to those moments of delight, no matter how superficial or impractical they seem. I suspect those moments of delight are sometimes the only kind of light we have to see a pathway leading to something better.